Gymnastics: Tweddle misses medal amid age controversy

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The Independent Online

Beth Tweddle, the finest gymnast Britain has ever had, is far too nice ever to moan about an unfair result. But here today, in the uneven bars final, the 23-year-old former world champion from Cheshire was, quite frankly, robbed of a medal.

The larceny had nothing to do with a scores fiasco, although the final had one. China's He Kexin and America's Nastia Luikin finished tied with scores of 16.725 but He took the gold via a convoluted tie-breaker analysis that even the sport's world governing body, the FIG, said afterwards was wrong.

Another Chinese girl, Yang Yilin was third, and Tweddle was fourth, and herein lies the injustice. The best evidence strongly suggests that He is too young to be competing. And if the tiny local heroine had not been here, Tweddle might well have taken bronze, or better. Yang's age is also disputed.

The controversy over He has been bubbling for a couple of months since the Chinese named her in their team for the Games. Her age, which had previously been given by several official Chinese sources as 14, suddenly became 16, which meets the requirement that competitors must be 16 in the year of the Games.

Two official Chinese gymnastic websites " now blocked" previously gave He's birth date as 1994, making her 14 this year. The China Daily, the government newspaper, profiled her earlier this year and said she was 14. And most compelling of all was a speech in November 2007 when a Chinese official, Liu Peng, introduced He as 13.

Yet when the New York Times recently presented this evidence to Chinese Olympic officials, the paper was shown He's passport, issued in February 2008. Her date of birth is given as 1 January 1992. The International Olympic Committee will not investigate, saying the FIG is responsible for age verification. The FIG says a passport is proof of age. And that, unfortunately for Tweddle, is that.

The Briton, older by five years than the next youngest finalist, was unwilling to be drawn on the subject last night, saying only: "I can only do what I do and not worry about the rest." Luikin, 18, made similar noises saying: "I don't know how old she is but I do know that she gave a performance that merited her medal."

The Independent tried to speak to He in the "mix zone" and ask her age but she was quickly ushered away. Standing close up, three feet away from her at most, she does not even look 14, let alone 16. When The Independent tried to take a photograph, three mix zone officials blocked the view, briefly tried to take the camera, and then hurried He away.

There were no quibbles from Tweddle about her mark of 16.625. "Obviously I'm gutted but last Sunday I didn't think I'd even be competing [because of a rib injury] so I'm pleased just to make the final." Her mark would have been better, almost certainly good enough for a podium place, but for a messy dismount.

Prior to that, she had performed a splendid routine which was technically the most difficult of the eight on show. It elicited the loudest gasps of appreciation from a knowledgeable crowd.

"The dismount probably did cost me my place [on the podium]," she said. "My dismount is normally not a problem but I just didn't get enough height and to be honest I thought I was going to end up on my face."

On the gold fiasco, the FIG president, Bruno Grandi, said it was "not correct" to use tie-breakers, and that two golds should have been awarded.